A bacterial infection occurs when bacteria enter your body and begin to multiply.

Not all bacteria are bad. In fact, various species of bacteria begin to colonize our bodies shortly after we’re born. These bacteria are harmless and can offer us benefits sometimes, like helping with digestion.

Some types of bacteria, referred to as pathogenic bacteria, are harmful to us. When they infect us, they can cause disease.

Some of these infections can become serious, so be sure to see your doctor if you think you have a bacterial infection. For example, a minor skin infection may develop into cellulitis if left untreated.

Additionally, some infections can lead to a life-threatening condition called sepsis. It’s an extreme response by your body to an infection.

Below, we’ll explore some of the signs and symptoms of a bacterial infection in cuts, burns, and within the body.

Signs and symptoms of a bacterial infection may vary depending on the location of the infection and the type of bacteria that’s causing it. However, some general symptoms of a bacterial infection include:

  • fever
  • feeling tired or fatigued
  • swollen lymph nodes in the neck, armpits, or groin
  • headache
  • nausea or vomiting

Cuts

Your skin is your body’s first defense against infection. Breaks in the skin, like cuts, scrapes, or surgical incisions, can provide an entryway into the body for bacteria.

Symptoms of an infected cut or wound can include:

  • redness in the area of the wound, particularly if it spreads or forms a red streak
  • swelling or warmth in the affected area
  • pain or tenderness at or around the site of the wound
  • pus forming around or oozing from the wound
  • fever
  • swollen lymph nodes in the neck, armpits, or groin
  • delayed wound healing

Burns

Burns happen when the tissues of your body are exposed to things like heat, radiation, or chemicals. Burns can vary in severity, from only affecting the top layer of skin to reaching layers of tissue deep beneath the skin.

People with burns are at risk for developing complications, such as a bacterial infection. Symptoms that a burn has become infected include:

  • an increase in pain or discomfort around the affected area
  • redness in the area of the burn, especially if it begins to spread or form a red streak
  • swelling or warmth in the affected area
  • fluid or pus oozing from the burn site
  • a bad smell around the burn

If your burn causes a blister to form, that area is at risk of becoming infected if the blister bursts.

In the body

Bacteria can cause a variety of other infections in your body.

Below is just a small sampling of infections you may already be familiar with. As you can see, the symptoms for these infections vary by the type of bacteria causing the infection and the part of your body that’s affected.

Strep throat

Strep throat is an infection of the throat caused by a type of bacteria called group A Streptococcus. Symptoms include:

  • sore throat
  • difficulty swallowing
  • red or white patches on the back of the throat
  • headache
  • loss of appetite

Urinary tract infection

Urinary tract infections (UTIs) occur when bacteria from your rectum or skin enter your urinary tract. UTI symptoms can include:

  • a burning sensation when urinating
  • having to urinate frequently
  • cloudy urine
  • abdominal cramps
  • fever

Pneumonia

Pneumonia is an infection that inflames the air sacs in your lungs. Bacteria such as Streptococcus pneumoniae can cause it. Symptoms of pneumonia include:

  • cough
  • pain in your chest
  • fever
  • sweating or chills
  • shortness of breath
  • feeling tired or fatigued

Food poisoning

Food poisoning can happen when you consume food or water that’s been contaminated with bacteria. Some types of bacteria that cause food poisoning include Escherichia coli, Listeria, and Salmonella. Symptoms can include:

  • nausea or vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • abdominal cramps
  • fever

Bacterial meningitis

Meningitis is inflammation of the tissues that surround the brain and spinal cord. Bacterial meningitis can develop from several types of bacteria, including Streptococcus pneumoniae and Neisseria meningitidis. Symptoms include:

  • headache
  • stiff neck
  • fever
  • nausea or vomiting
  • confusion
  • sensitivity to light

Sepsis

An untreated bacterial infection can also put you at risk for developing a life-threatening condition called sepsis.

Sepsis occurs when an infection causes an extreme reaction in your body. The bacteria to cause sepsis include Staphylococcus aureus, E. coli, and some types of Streptococcus.

Sepsis is always a medical emergency. Seek immediate medical attention if you experience any of the following:

  • shortness of breath
  • fast heart rate
  • fever
  • being in severe pain or discomfort
  • chills or sweating
  • confusion

Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections. These medications target specific bacterial processes and can either kill bacteria or prevent them from multiplying.

There are many different classes of antibiotics available. The antibiotic a healthcare provider prescribes you will depend on the type of bacteria causing your infection. This is because some bacteria may be susceptible to a specific antibiotic, but others may not.

If your infection is mild, you’ll likely be given an oral course of antibiotics. Always be sure to take your entire course of antibiotics, even if you begin to feel better. Not finishing your antibiotics can cause some bacteria to survive, and your infection may come back.

If your infection is serious, you may need to be treated in a hospital. In this case, stronger antibiotics may be given via an IV.

In addition to taking antibiotics, treatment can also involve easing your symptoms. For example, taking pain-relief medication for a headache or aches and pains, or taking an anti-diarrheal to help stop diarrhea.

Be sure to follow the tips below to prevent bacterial infections:

  • Get vaccinated. Many bacterial infections are vaccine-preventable, such as whooping cough, tetanus, and bacterial meningitis.
  • Moisturize your skin. Dry skin can crack, which can allow bacteria in.
  • Practice good hygiene. Wash your hands frequently, especially before eating and after using the bathroom. If your hands aren’t clean, avoid touching your face, nose, or mouth. Taking regular baths and showers can also help wash off potentially harmful bacteria from your skin.
  • Avoid sharing personal items. Sharing things like toothbrushes or drinking glasses can transmit bacteria.
  • Cook food to the correct temperature. Eating raw or undercooked food can lead to food poisoning.
  • Keep wounds clean. Make sure wounds are cleaned as soon as possible. Only touch the area of the wound with clean hands, and avoid picking or scratching. If you have a bandage or dressing, be sure to change it regularly or according to your doctor’s instructions.
  • Use antibiotic ointment. If you have a wound, using Neosporin can help keep bacteria out. Make sure you only apply a thin layer to the site with clean hands.
  • Practice safe sex. Many sexually transmitted infections (STIs), such as gonorrhea and chlamydia, are caused by bacteria. Wear a condom and get regular STI screenings.

Always make an appointment with your doctor if you have:

  • difficulty breathing
  • a persistent cough, or coughing up pus
  • unexplained redness or swelling of the skin, especially if the redness is expanding or forms a red streak
  • a persistent fever
  • frequent vomiting and trouble holding liquids down
  • nausea or vomiting that’s causing dehydration
  • blood in urine, vomit, or stool
  • severe abdominal pain or cramping
  • severe headache
  • a sore throat that lasts longer than two days
  • a cut, incision, or burn that appears to be infected

Bacteria can cause a variety of infections in your body. Because bacterial infections can become serious if left untreated, it’s very important to know what signs and symptoms to look out for.

If you suspect that you have a bacterial infection, make an appointment with your doctor. The sooner you get treatment, the sooner you can feel start feeling better.